Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi
30 July, 2014
One of the things that drew me to Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi is the name Pereira, which holds a certain allure if you are interested in Sri Lankan colonial history, and that the novella is set in Portugal. I took this book with me on holiday to Lisbon and Porto and it filled me with pleasure to read of Dr. Pereira traversing the same, now familiar, streets of Lisbon.
Set one scorching summer in 1938, Dr. Pereira is given the task of setting up the Culture section of a Catholic newspaper, Lisboa. His interests veers towards classical French literature, which he translates in his spare time, but he is in search of a writer who can produce short, contemporary obituaries of Portuguese writers which can be published when the time comes. And so he chances upon an essay on death by a young graduate named Monteiro Rossi and immediately contacts him. However, Monteiro Rossi, a fiery half-Italian, has an agenda. He professes that he isn’t actually interested in death but needs the money so will write for Pereira. But the pieces he sends in are unpublishable, too controversial and critical of the present Portuguese government. When Pereira meets Marta, a young Communist eager to support Spain against the Franco’s fascists, he grows concerned for the young and naïve Monteiro Rossi who has fallen under her spell and is on a dangerous path. And so Pereira, who has always lived a solid, stable life begins to question his beliefs as his beloved country slowly falls under the spell of the fascists.
Pereira Maintains certainly packs a much larger punch than its slim volume would suggest. It takes its time, mimicking the slow, sweltering heat of a Portuguese summer. We learn of Pereira’s student days at Coimbra, his courting of his beloved, deceased wife, the snoopy caretaker at his office whom he is convinced is working for the secret police. It’s a world that is changing, becoming much darker, more violent and you begin see the start of the paranoia that will characterise Portugal under an authoritarian leadership. Tabucchi portrays the clash of two different worlds separated by one thin, fragile leaf of history. Pereira symbolises the old, free, unchanging, slow-paced world that is slowly disappearing. And Monteiro Rossi, the new, frantic, uncertain and perpetually changing world towards which Portugal inevitably heads. But between these two very different people, so different in their upbringing, age and beliefs, flares a sudden and life-changing friendship.
What keeps Tabucchi’s novel alive is Pereira himself. This solid, overweight man with a heart condition is an affable sort. But Tabucchi doesn’t stop there. He focuses on the small resistances Pereira maintains in his work, against his boss, the caretaker, and slowly magnifies them as the issues in Pereira’s life and his country grow. It’s a manifesto for one man’s life and beliefs. That just because you think you have already lived the best part of your life doesn’t mean that you cannot contribute to society and world events.
Pereira Maintains is a beautifully crafted book that starts slowly and grows in pace as it reaches its devastating climax. The shocking bits are brief and the sense of urgency heightened. It’s the last stand of a good man and a glimpse into the dark history of modern Portugal. Beautiful.